Edgar Saltus.

The Truth About Tristrem Varick: A Novel



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He sat awhile, broken by the horror of the dream. The palms of his hands were not yet dry. But soon he bestirred himself, and went to the door; the lights had been extinguished; he closed it again, and, with the aid of some candles, he prepared for bed. He would have read a little, but he was fatigued, tired by the emotions of the day, and when at last he lay down it was an effort to rise again and put out the candle. How long he lay in darkness, a second, an hour, he could not afterward recall; it seemed to him that he had drowsed off at once, but suddenly he started, trembling from head to foot. He had heard Viola's voice soaring to its uttermost tension. "Coward," she had called. And then all was still. He listened, he even went to the door, but the house was wrapped in silence.

"Bah!" he muttered, "I am entertaining a procession of nightmares." And in a few moments he was again asleep.

VIII

At dawn he awoke refreshed. The sun rose from the ocean like an indolent girl from a bath. Before the house was astir he was out of doors exploring the land. He strolled past the row of hotels that front the sea, and pausing a moment at the Casino, fragrant then, and free of the stench of drink that is the outcome of the later season, he wondered how it was that, given money, and possibly brains, it was necessary to make a building as awkward as was that. And then he strayed to the shore, past the tenantless bath-houses, and on through the glories of the morning to the untrodden beach beyond.

As he walked, the village faded in the haze. The tide was low and the sand firm and hard. The waves broke leisurely in films and fringes of white, gurgling an invitation to their roomy embrace. And when the hotels were lost in the distance and the solitude was murmurous with nature alone, Tristrem, captivated by the allurements of the sea, went down into the waves and clasped them to him as lovers clasp those they love.

The sun was well on its amble to the zenith before he returned to the cottage. His hostess, he found, had not yet appeared, and as breakfast seemed to be served in that pleasant fashion which necessitates nothing, not even an appetite, Tristrem drank his coffee in solitude. And as he idled over the meal he recalled the horrors of the night, and smiled. The air of the morning, the long and quiet stroll, the plunge in the sea, and the after-bath of sunlight that he had taken stretched full length on the sand, had dissipated the enervating emotions of dream and brought him in their stead a new invigoration. He was about to begin the dithyrambs of the day before, when the servant appeared, bearing a yellow envelope, and a book in which he was to put his name. He gave the receipt and opened the message, wonderingly.

"Please come to town," it ran, "your father is dying. – Robert Harris."

"Your father is dying," he repeated. "H'm. Robert Harris. I never knew before what the butler's first name was.

But what has that to do with it? There are times when I am utterly imbecile. Your father is dying. Yes, of course, I must go at once. But it isn't possible. H'm. I remember. He looked ghastly when I saw him. I suppose – I ought to – good God, why should I attempt to feign a sorrow that I do not feel? It is his own fault. I would have – But there, what is the use?"

He bit his nail; he was perplexed at his absence of sensibility. "And yet," he mused, "in his way he has been kind to me. He has been kind; that is, if it be kindness in a father to let a son absolutely alone. After all, filial affection must be like patriotism, ingrained as an obligation, a thing to blush at if not possessed. Yet then, again, if a country acts like a step-mother to its children, if a father treats a son as a guardian might treat a ward, the ties are conventional; and on what shall affection subsist? It was he who called me into being, and, having done so, he assumed duties which he should not have shirked. It was not for him to make himself a stranger to me; it was for him to teach me to honor him so much, to love him so well that at his death my head would be bowed in prostrations of grief. I used to try to school myself to think that it was only his way; that, outwardly cold and undemonstrative, his heart was warm as another's. But – well, it may have been, it may have been. After all, if I can't grieve, I would cross the continent to spare him a moment's pain. It was he, I suppose, who told Harris to wire. Yes, I must hurry."

He called the servant to him. "Can you tell me, please, when the next train goes?" But the servant had no knowledge whereon to base a reply. She suggested, however, that information might be obtained at an inn which stood a short distance up the road. He scribbled a few lines on a card, and gave it to the woman. "Take that to Miss Raritan, please, will you?" he said, and left the house.

At the inn a very large individual sat on the stoop, coatless, a straw covering of a remoter summer far back on his head, and his feet turned in. He listened to Tristrem with surly indifference, and spat profusely. He didn't know; he reckoned the morning train had gone.

"Hay, Alf," he called out to the negro who had taken Tristrem from the station the night before, and who was then driving by, "when's the next train go?"

"'Bout ten minutes; I just took a party from Taylor's."

"Thank you," said Tristrem to the innkeeper, who spat again by way of acknowledgment. "Can you take me to the station?" he asked the negro; and on receiving an affirmative reply, he told him to stop at Mrs. Raritan's for his traps.

As Tristrem entered the gate he saw Viola's assistant of the preceding evening drive up, waving a hat.

"I got it," the man cried out, "here it is. First time it ever passed a night out of doors, I'll bet. And none the worse for it, either." He handed it over to Tristrem. "I dreamt about you last night," he added.

"That's odd," Tristrem answered, "I dreamed about you." The man laughed at this as had he never heard anything so droll. "Well, I swan!" he exclaimed, and cracked his whip with delight. His horse started. "Here," he said, "I near forgot. Whoa, there, can't you. This goes with the hat." And he crumpled a handkerchief in his hand, and tossing it to Tristrem, he let the horse continue his way unchecked.

The hat which the man had found did not indeed look as though it had passed a night on the roadside. Save for an incidental speck or two it might have come fresh from a bandbox. Tristrem carried it into the cottage, and was placing it on the hall-table when Mrs. Raritan appeared.

"I am so sorry," she began, "Viola has told me – "

"How is she? May I not see her?"

"She scarcely slept last night."

Tristrem looked in the lady's face. The lids of her eyes were red and swollen.

"But may I not see her? May I not, merely for a moment."

"She is sleeping now," Mrs. Raritan answered; "perhaps," she added, "it is better that you should not. The doctor has been here. He says that she should be quiet. But you will come back, will you not? Truly I sympathize with you."

Mrs. Raritan's eyes filled with tears, but to what they were due, who shall say? She seemed to Tristrem unaccountably nervous and distressed.

"There is nothing serious the matter, is there?" he asked, anxiously. And at the question, Mrs. Raritan almost choked. She shook her head, however, but Tristrem was not assured. "I must see her," he said, and he made as would he mount the stair.

"Mr. Varick! she is asleep. She has had a wretched night. When you are able to come back, it will be different. But if you care for her, let her be."

The protest was almost incoherent. Mrs. Raritan appeared beside herself with anxiety.

"Forgive me," said Tristrem, "I did not mean to vex you. Nor would I disturb her." He paused a second, dumbly and vaguely afflicted. "You will tell her, will you not?" he added; "tell her this, that I wanted to see her. Mrs. Raritan, my whole life is wrapped up in her." He hesitated again. "You are tired too, I can see. You were up with her last night, were you not?"

Mrs. Raritan bowed her head.

"You must forgive me," he repeated, "I did not understand. Tell me," he continued, "last night I awoke thinking that I heard her calling. Did she call?"

"Call what?"

"I thought – you see I was half, perhaps wholly asleep, but I thought I heard her voice. I was mistaken, was I not?"

"Yes, you must have been."

The negro had brought down the luggage, and stood waiting at the gate.

"You will tell her – Mrs. Raritan – I love her with all my heart and soul."

The lady's lips quivered. "She knows it, and so do I."

"You will ask her to write."

"Yes, I will do so."

Tristrem took her hand in his. "Tell her from me," he began, but words failed him, it was his face that completed the message. In a moment more he was in the coach on his way to the station.

There was a brisk drive along the sea, a curve was rounded, and the station stood in sight. And just as the turn was made Tristrem caught the shriek of a whistle.

"There she goes," the negro exclaimed, "you ought to have been spryer."

"Has the train gone?" Tristrem asked.

"Can't you see her? I knew you'd be late." The man was insolent in his familiarity, but Tristrem did not seem to notice it.

"I would have given much not to be," he said.

At this the negro became a trifle less uncivil. "Would you ree-ly like to catch that train?" he asked.

"I would indeed."

"Is it worth twenty-five dollars to you?"

Tristrem nodded.

"Well, boss, I tell you. That train stops at Peacedale, and at Wakefield she shunts off till the mail passes. Like as not the express is late. If I get you to Kingston before the Newport passes, will you give me twenty-five?"

"If I make the connection I will give you fifty."

"That's talking. You'll get there, boss. Just lay back and count your thumbs."

The negro snapped his whip, and soon Tristrem was jolted over one of the worst and fairest roads of New England, through a country for which nature has done her best, and where only the legislator is vile. One hamlet after another was passed, and still the coach rolled on.

"We'll get there," the negro repeated from time to time, and to encourage his fare he lashed the horses to their utmost speed. Peacedale was in the distance; Wakefield was passed, and in a cloud of dust they tore through Kingston and reached the station just as the express steamed up.

"I told you I'd do it," the negro exclaimed, exultingly. "I'll get checks for your trunks."

A minute or two more, and the checks were obtained; the negro was counting a roll of bills, and in a drawing-room car Tristrem was being whirled to New York.

For several hours he sat looking out at the retreating uplands, villages, and valleys. But after a while he remembered the scantiness of his breakfast, and, summoning the porter, he obtained from him some food and drink. By this time the train had reached New Haven, and there Tristrem alighted to smoke a cigarette. He was, however, unable to finish it before the whistle warned him that he should be aboard again. The porter, who had been gratified by a tip, then told him that there was a smoking compartment in the car beyond the one in which he had sat, and, as the train moved on, Tristrem went forward in the direction indicated.

The compartment was small, with seats for two on one side, and for three, or for four at most, on the other. As Tristrem entered it he saw that the larger sofa was occupied by one man, who lay out on it, full length, his face turned to the partition. Tristrem took a seat opposite him, and lit a fresh cigarette. As he smoked he looked at the reclining form of his vis-?-vis. About the man's neck a silk handkerchief had been rolled, but one end had come undone and hung loosely on the cushion, and as Tristrem looked he noticed that on the neck was a wound, unhealed and fresh, a line of excoriation, that neither steel nor shot could have caused, but which might have come from a scratch. But, after all, what business was it of his? And he turned his attention again to the retreating uplands and to the villages that starred the route.

When the cigarette was done, he stood up to leave the compartment. But however quietly he had moved, he seemed to arouse his neighbor, who turned heavily, as though to change his position. As he did so, Tristrem saw that it was Royal Weldon, and that on his face was a bruise. He would have spoken, for Weldon was looking at him, but he recalled the wanton lie of the week before, and as he hesitated whether to speak or pass on, Weldon half rose. "Damn you," he said, "you are everywhere." Then he lay down, turning his face again to the wall, and Tristrem, without a word, went to the other car and found his former seat.

Two hours later he reached his home. He let himself in with a latch-key, and rang the bell. But when Harris appeared he knew at once, by the expression which the butler assumed, that he had come too late.

"When did it happen?" he asked.

"It was last evening, sir; he came in from his drive and inquired for you, sir. I said that you had gone out of town, and showed him the address you left. When I went to hannounce dinner, sir, he was sitting in his arm-chair with his hat on. I thought he was asleep. I sent for Dr. McMasters, sir, but it was no use. Dr. McMasters said it was the 'art, sir."

"You have notified my grandfather, have you not?"

"Yes, sir, I did, sir; Mr. Van Norden came in this morning, and left word as how he would like to see you when you got back, sir."

"Very good. Call Davis, and get my things from the cabman."

"Yes, sir; thank you, sir. I beg pardon, sir," he added, "would you wish some dinner? There's a nice fillet and a savory."

IX

The morning after the funeral Tristrem received a letter from Mrs. Raritan, and a little later a small package by express. The letter was not long, and its transcription is unnecessary. It was to the effect that on maturer consideration Viola had decided that the engagement into which she had entered was untenable. To this decision Mrs. Raritan felt herself reluctantly obliged to concur. It was not that Mr. Varick was one whom she would be unwilling to welcome as her daughter's husband. On the contrary, he was in many respects precisely what she most desired. But Viola was young; she felt that she had a vocation to which marriage would be an obstacle, and in the circumstances Viola was the better judge. In any event, Mr. Varick was requested to consider the decision as irrevocable. Then followed a few words of sympathy and a line of condolence expressive of Mrs. Raritan's regret that the breaking of the engagement should occur at a time when Tristrem was in grievous affliction.

In the package were the jewels.

Tristrem read the letter as though he were reading some accusation of felony levelled at him in the public press. If it had been a meteor which had fallen at his feet he could not have wondered more. Indeed, it was surprise that he felt. It was not anger or indignation; they were after-comers. For the moment he was merely bewildered. It seemed to him incredible that such a thing could be. He read the letter again, and even examined the post-mark. At first he was for starting at once for Narragansett. If he could but see Viola! The excuse about a vocation was nonsense. Had he not told her that if she insisted on going on the stage, he would sit in the stalls and applaud. No, it was not that; it was because – After all, it was his own fault; if he had been unable to make himself beloved, why should the engagement continue? But had an opportunity been given him? He had not had speech with her since that evening when she had drawn his face to hers. No, it could not be that.

He bowed his head, and then Anger came and sat at his side. What had he done to Destiny that he should be to it the play-thing that he was? But she; she was more voracious even than Fate. No, it was damnable. Why should she take his heart and torment it? Why, having given love, should she take it away? He was contented enough until he saw her. Why had she come to him as the one woman in the world, luring him on; yes, for she had lured him on? Why had she made him love her as he could never love again, and just when she placed her hand in his, – a mist, a phantom, a reproach? Why had she done so? Why was the engagement untenable? Untenable, indeed, why was it untenable? Why – why – why? And in the increasing exasperation of the moment, Tristrem did a thing that, with him, was unusual. He rang the bell, and bade the servant bring him drink.

It was on the afternoon of that day that he learned the tenor of his father's will. It affected him as a chill affects a man smitten with fever. He accepted it as a matter of course. It was not even the last drop; the cup was full as it stood. What was it to him that he had missed being one of the richest men in New York in comparison to the knowledge that even had he the mines of Ormuz and of Ind, the revenue would be as useless to him as the hands of the dead? Was she to be bought? Had she not taken herself away before the contents of the will were reported? He might be able to call the world his own, and it would avail him nothing.

The will left him strangely insensible, though, after all, one may wonder whether winter is severer than autumn to a flower once dead.

But if the will affected Tristrem but little, it stirred Dirck Van Norden to paroxysms of wrath. "He ought to have his ghost kicked," he said, in confidential allusion to Erastus Varick. "It's a thing that cries out to heaven. And don't you tell me, sir, that nothing can be done."

The lawyer with whom he happened to be in consultation said there were many things that could be done. Indeed, he was reassuringly fecund in resources. In the first place, the will was holographic. That, of course, mattered nothing; it only pointed a moral. Laymen should not draw up their own wills. For that matter, even professionals should be as wary of so doing as physicians are of doctoring themselves. And the lawyer instanced legal luminaries, judges whose obiter dicta and opinions in banco were cited and received with the greatest respect, and yet through whose wills, drawn up, mark you, by their own skilled hands, coaches and tandems had been driven full speed. In regard to the will of the deceased there was this to be said, it would not hold water. Chapter 360, Laws of 1860, declares that no person having a husband, wife, child, or parent, shall by his or her last will and testament, devise or bequeath to any benevolent, charitable, scientific, literary, religious, or missionary society, association, or corporation, in trust or otherwise, more than one-half part of his or her estate.

"But he devised the whole."

"Yes, so he did; but in devising it he overlooked that very wise law. My opinion in the matter is this. When, may I ask, was your grandson born?"

"He was born on the 10th of June, 1859."

"Exactly. The late Mr. Varick determined, on the birth of your grandson, that the property should go over. His reasons for so determining are immaterial. Rufus K. Taintor, the ablest man, sir, that ever sat on the bench or addressed it, drew up the will at that time in accordance with instructions received. Some years later, Taintor died of apoplexy, and he died, too, as you doubtless remember, after the delivery of that famous speech in the Besalul divorce case. Well, sir, what I make of the matter is this. The late Mr. Varick, relying on Taintor's ability, and possessing possibly some smattering of law of his own, recopied the will every time the fancy took him to make minor alterations in the general distribution of the trust. Consequently his last will and testament, having been made since the passage of the law of 1860, is nugatory and void as to one-half the bequest, and your grandson may still come in for a very pretty sum."

"He ought to have it all," said Mr. Van Norden, decidedly.

"I don't dispute that, sir, in the least – and my opinion is that he will get it. This will is dated five days previous to Mr. Varick's demise. Now, according to the law of 1848, Chapter 319, and, if I remember rightly, Section 6, no such bequest as the deceased's is valid in any will which shall not have been made and executed at least two months before the death of the testator. That, sir, I consider an extremely wise bit of legislation. The law of 1860, which I quoted, vitiates the will as to one-half the bequest; the law of 1848 does away with the will altogether. Practically speaking, your son-in-law might just as well have died intestate. Though, between ourselves, if Mr. Varick had not been ignorant of these laws, and had not, in consequence of his ignorance, made a disposition of certain private documents the contents of which are easily guessed, your grandson would have merely a prima facie right to have the will set aside; for, if you remember, these laws were passed only to provide for the possible interests of a surviving husband, wife, or child."



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